WTF Community

What We Learned in the Trump-Russia Investigation: Week of Feb 3 – 9, 2019

russia

(Adrienne Cobb) #1

TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ (as short as I could make it)

A partially redacted transcript of a hearing in Paul Manafort’s case was released – we learned that: Manafort continued working for a Ukrainian client after being indicted, into 2018; Manafort of lying about “an extremely sensitive matter” in the hopes of upping his chances of getting a pardon from Trump; Manafort discussing a “backdoor” with Konstantin Kilimnik, who is believed to be associated with Russian intelligence. Manafort’s sentencing date has been delayed to March 13. Ukrainian oligarch Pavel Fuks gave an interview wherein he revealed that Trump demanded a $20 million non-negotiable fee for his part in building a Trump Tower in Moscow (the 2006 attempt). The former mayor of Moscow told the press that in the 1990’s Trump was interested in building a large underground mall and was involved in numerous conversations with the mayor’s administration.

One of the men in the Russian party at the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, lobbyist and former Soviet military officer Rinat Akhmetshin, received $500,000 in suspicious payments before and after the meeting. Belarusian businessmen Sergei Millian, an “unwitting source” for Christopher Steele’s dossier, made previously unknown attempts to get close to Trump – in 2016 he spent months cultivating a relationship with campaign aide George Papadopoulos, eventually meeting him around Trump’s inauguration at a DC restaurant called the Russia House. According to former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s new book, deputy AG Rod Rosenstein was ordered by President Trump to write a memo justifying Comey’s firing.

Acting AG Matthew Whitaker testified before the House Judiciary Committee: he stated under oath that he didn’t brief Trump about Mueller’s probe and that he has “not interfered in any way” with the investigation. House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters is negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to appear before the committee and testify about his decision to lift sanctions on oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The House Ways and Means committee held its first hearing on the potential of requesting Trump’s taxes from the Department of Treasury. Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, meant to happen last week, was rescheduled for February 28.

The Republican operative and boyfriend of Russian spy Maria Butina, Paul Erickson, was indicted by a grand jury in South Dakota for wire fraud and money laundering. Federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York subpoenaed Trump’s inaugural committee on Monday, seeking a wide range of information including donors, guests, finances, and activities. When the FBI raided Michael Cohen’s office last year, some of the tapes they seized included hours of conversations between Cohen and event producer Stephanie Wolkoff. In the tapes, Wolkoff expresses concern about the misspending of inaugural money, particularly by chairman Tom Barrack. A confidential memo obtained by ProPublica revealed that the Chairman of Trump’s Inaugural Committee, Tom Barrack, planned to profit off his connections to Trump’s administration and the access to foreign officials that came with it.

At the end of last year, Maryland and Washington DC prosecutors subpoenaed Trump’s company, DJT Holdings, that controls his DC Hotel and his golf resorts in the US and in Scotland and Ireland, as part of an ongoing investigation into whether the president is violating the Emoluments Clause. Manhattan federal prosecutors have requested interviews with Trump Organization executives, though it is not clear what topics they are interested in. Prosecutors with the Southern District of New York have been interviewing people involved in three major law and lobbying firms that worked with Paul Manafort to promote the interests of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych.

Jeff Bezos published a blog post Thursday accusing National Enquirer’s publisher, AMI, of trying to extort him. The source for the personal text messages was reportedly the mistress’s brother, Michael Sanchez, who is an outspoken Trump supporter with close to Roger Stone and Carter Page.


MUELLER INVESTIGATION

Mueller: Manafort

Transcript. CNN posted a partially redacted transcript of a hearing in Paul Manafort’s case that took place on Monday last week. The purpose of the hearing was for the judge to hear evidence that Manafort lied to Mueller’s team, thus breaking their plea agreement. Contained in the transcript, the revelation that Manafort continued working for a Ukrainian client after being indicted, into 2018. Mueller’s prosecutors accuse Manafort of lying about “an extremely sensitive matter” in the hopes of upping his chances of getting a pardon from Trump. Additionally, there’s an interesting reference to Manafort discussing a “backdoor” with Konstantin Kilimnik, who is believed to be associated with Russian intelligence.

  • NBC News: Judge Jackson asked prosecutors why the Kilimnik discussions and his role in 2016 were important… “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating. And in 2016. there is an in-person meeting with someone who the government has certainly proffered to this court in the past, is understood by the FBI, assessed to be — have a relationship with Russian intelligence, that there is REDACTED. And there is an in-person meeting at an unusual time for somebody who is the campaign chairman to be spending time, and to be doing it in person,” Weissman said.

Sentencing. Manafort’s sentencing date has been delayed to March 13.

Mueller: Trump Tower Moscow

Moscow deal update. Buzzfeed released a large trove of internal Trump Org documents created during the attempt to secure a deal to build a Trump Tower Moscow. A significant portion of the collection is made up of emails and text messages between Michael Cohen and Felix Sater. While some of these quotes aren’t newly published, the entire collection puts them in context we didn’t have before.

  • In one exchange, Sater tells Cohen he thought he could get Putin to voice his support for Trump in the US presidential election, framed around Trump being a good negotiator. He continues, “If he says it we own this election.” In another instance, Sater tells Cohen “ Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy into this…”
  • The details of this document drop further flesh out the broad strokes that were previously reported. As Buzzfeed puts it: “The documents…reveal that — despite Trump’s claim that the development was never more than a passing notion — the effort to get the tower built was long-running, detail-oriented, and directly entwined with the ups and downs of his campaign.” The article includes a timeline of the communications between Cohen and Sater, with relevant tweets and statements made by Trump.
  • Do these documents contain a hint of the company that may be fighting Mueller’s grand jury subpoena? Possibly. In a 2015 email to Cohen, Sater states that the Russian state-controlled VTB Bank is “on board” to finance the Moscow deal. Sater praises the president and chairman of VTB Bank, Andrey Kostin, saying he is “extremely powerful and respected.” Some people see this connection as an indication that VTB Bank could be the foreign-owned company engaged in a legal fight with Mueller.

2006 deal. Ukrainian oligarch Pavel Fuks spoke with Bloomberg News last week in an interview where he revealed that Trump demanded a $20 million non-negotiable fee for his part in building a Trump Tower in Moscow (the 2006 attempt). Bloomberg News could not verify Fuks’ account. He claimed to have offered Trump $10 million in installments, but Trump wouldn’t accept less than $20 million. Fuks also said after meeting with Trump several times in the US, Ivanka and Don Jr. visited him in Moscow to discuss the project.

  • Fuks has come up in another investigation into Trump: the inaugural probe. He admitted to paying a Ukrainian American businessman $200,000 to attend official inauguration events to meet Trump, but his attempts failed to garner invitations. Nonetheless, he attended various related events around that time.

Spa by Ivanka. In an interview with ABC, Ivanka Trump claimed she knew “literally almost nothing” about the proposed Trump Tower in Moscow. She also said she “has zero concern” that her loved ones may be in legal peril for their involvement in the project, which is being investigated by Mueller’s team and possibly other federal investigators. It is hard to believe that Ivanka knew nothing about the project, considering there are emails proving she suggested Russian contacts to facilitate the deal, she suggested an architect, and she planned to brand the fitness or spa facilities in the tower with her name: The Spa by Ivanka Trump. If she did brand the spa with her name, she would have the sole power to choose “all interior design elements of the spa or fitness facilities” under the terms of the initial agreement.

1990’s. The former mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov (in office 1992-2010), spoke to the press about Trump’s business interests in Moscow in the 1990s. According to Luzhkov, Trump was interested in building a large underground mall and was involved in numerous conversations with the mayor’s administration. Some of these meetings were broadcast by Russian State TV in 1995. A year later, Trump returned to Moscow and announced he planned to invest $250 million in several building projects. Details such as these prove Trump was lying when he claimed not to have any business or history of business in Russia. During a 2016 presidential debate, Trump claimed: ““I know nothing about Russia. I don’t deal there.”

Mueller: Other

Follow the money. One of the men in the Russian party at the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, lobbyist and former Soviet military officer Rinat Akhmetshin, received $500,000 in suspicious payments before and after the meeting. As part of Mueller’s investigation, the financial documents of participants in the meeting were requested from banks and examined. Some of the deposits made by Akhmetshin came from Denis Katsyv, owner of Prevezon Holdings. As Buzzfeed News explained, Prevezon “was accused by the US Justice Department of laundering the proceeds of a $230 million Russian tax fraud. The Russian lawyer from the meeting, Natalya Veselnitskaya, was indicted on charges of obstructing justices in the Prevezon case.

Steele source. The Washington Post reported that Belarusian businessmen Sergei Millian, an “unwitting source” for Christopher Steele’s dossier, made previously unknown attempts to get close to Trump. In 2016, Millian spent months cultivating a relationship with campaign aide George Papadopoulos, eventually meeting him around Trump’s inauguration at a DC restaurant called the Russia House. In a 2016 interview with ABC News, Millian claimed to have high-level contacts in the Russian government. According to WaPo he offered to connect Papadopoulos with someone who has links to the Russian government. Also in the ABC interview, Millian claimed to have met Michael Cohen and Donald Trump himself.

Comey firing. According to former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s new book, deputy AG Rod Rosenstein was ordered by President Trump to write a memo justifying Comey’s firing. The ordeal reportedly left Rosenstein “shaken” over his role. McCabe quotes Rosenstein as saying, “There’s no one here that I can trust.”

  • The Guardian: McCabe recalls Rosenstein being “glassy-eyed”, visibly upset and sounding emotional after coming to believe the White House was using him as a scapegoat for Comey’s dismissal. “He said it wasn’t his idea. The president had ordered him to write the memo justifying the firing,” McCabe writes.

Gag order? The judge in the case against Roger Stone is considering issuing a gag order to keep Stone from making public comments about the case. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson warned Stone, “This is a criminal proceeding, not a public-relations campaign.” Mueller’s team supported the gag order, arguing public comments could taint the jury pool and undermine Stone’s right to a fair trial. In contrast, Stone’s lawyers said he should be “entitled to speak as he wishes” and a gag order would infringe on his First Amendment rights.

Corsi & Stone. Jerome Corsi filed a defamation lawsuit against his one-time friend Roger Stone, saying Stone conducted a smear campaign against him with the goal of causing him “heart attacks and strokes” to prevent him from testifying at Stone’s trial. Corsi is seeking $25 million in damages.

RUSSIA NEWS

Butina update. Russian agent Maria Butina’s lawyers submitted a joint statement with prosecutors requesting her sentencing date not be set yet, as she is not yet done cooperating with the government. A hearing originally scheduled for this week has been postponed to February 26.

State TV. Snopes verified a screenshot taken from Russian state TV featuring the hosts thanking Republican senators for lifting sanctions against oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s companies. Displayed in a graphic behind the hosts are eight GOP members: Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), John Cornyn (R-TX), Richard Burr (R-NC), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and John Thune (R-SD). A translation by Julia Davis states: “the host laughs out loud about the Democrats not getting enough votes to block the effort, expresses hope that this is just the beginning.” Interestingly, the graphic of the GOP senators was taken from Rachel Maddow’s show.

CONGRESS

House

Whitaker hearing. Acting AG Matthew Whitaker testified before the House Judiciary Committee Friday after threatening not to show up due to the Democrats authorizing a subpoena to force him to appear. Whitaker stated under oath that he didn’t brief Trump about Mueller’s probe and that he has “not interfered in any way” with the investigation. Details beyond that were hard to get from Whitaker, as he claimed executive privilege to conceal the details of his conversations with Trump.

  • Vox: Democrats repeatedly accused Whitaker of trying to stall for time by answering yes-no questions with long-winded responses, or by prefacing answers by thanking lawmakers for their questions or concerns… Republicans, for their part, seized the opportunity to do some dramatic pearl-clutching about Democrats’ questions. GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of being uninterested in Justice Department oversight and singularly focused on the president and the Mueller investigation.
  • Just hours after the hearing ended, Whitaker was spotted at the Trump International Hotel in DC. It is unclear why he was there, but amid criticism for being too close to Trump, it doesn’t look good.
  • Other concerning moments: Whitaker refused to comment on whether he believed the Mueller probe was a “witch hunt” and he seemed to support a conspiracy theory that CNN was tipped off to the impending arrest of Roger Stone.
  • OPINION: As a liberal watching the hearing, it seemed Whitaker was more disrespectful to the Democratic committee members than he was to Republicans. For instance, Chairman Nadler asked him a question and in response, Whitaker told him, ““Mr. Chairman, I see that your time is up,” calling the Chairman out for violating the 5-minute rule.

Deripaska sanctions. House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters is negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to appear before the committee and testify about his decision to lift sanctions on oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Waters requested for him to appear this week, but Mnuchin reportedly declined. The Treasury already missed a deadline the committee chairs set for last Tuesday to produce requested documents. If Mnuchin continues to delay, it’s likely Rep. Waters will subpoena him. Waters: “What we’re going to do is we’re going to get Mr. Mnuchin into the committee and ask him real pointed questions about de-listing.”

Tax returns. The House Ways and Means committee held its first hearing on the potential of requesting Trump’s taxes from the Department of Treasury and the options for future legislation mandating presidential candidates release their tax returns. Republicans on the committee argued against requesting Trump’s tax returns, saying it was unnecessary and sets a precedent that may lead to degrading the rights of all taxpayers.

  • If Democrats on the committee demand Trump’s personal tax returns, the Treasury Department has prepared what Politico called “arcane legal arguments” to stymie the attempt. The main thrust of their strategy involves casting the Democrats as overly partisan and untrustworthy – if the IRS hands over Trump’s tax returns, the Treasury claims the Democrats will leak the documents, which is a felony.
  • Legally, the IRS code gives some congressional committees the responsibility of overseeing the IRS and thus can request the returns on any individual or business. These must remain private, however, until both the committee and the House, as a whole, votes to release them to the public.

Cohen delayed. Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, meant to happen last week, was rescheduled for February 28. Chairman Adam Schiff only said it was moved “in the interests of the investigation.”

FEDERAL INVESTIGATIONS

Erickson indicted. The Republican operative and boyfriend of Russian spy Maria Butina, Paul Erickson, was indicted by a grand jury in South Dakota for wire fraud and money laundering. Erickson is accused of defrauding investors in various criminal schemes from 1996 to 2018, some involving assisted living homes and the development of wheelchairs. He entered a not guilty plea on Tuesday.

Inaugural subpoena. Federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York subpoenaed Trump’s inaugural committee on Monday, seeking a wide range of information including donors, guests, finances, and activities. Investigators are particularly interested in whether any foreign citizens illegally donated to the committee and if the committee or staff had knowledge of the legality of these donations at the time. Trump’s inaugural committee raised a record-breaking $106.7 million, twice as much as Obama’s first inaugural.

  • Only one individual was named in the subpoena: Imaad Zuberi, a venture capitalist who previously donated to Obama, but gave $900,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee. He is named in connection with a breakfast event for donors, featuring high-ranking Republicans like Rep. Devin Nunes and Trump’s National Security Adviser at the time, Michael Flynn. The event garnered interest in part due to the foreign officials on the guest list, which included officials from Qatar and Kazakhstan.
  • Zuberi initially came to public attention when the Daily Beast reported on his conversations with Michael Cohen about gaining access to high-level events in Trump World. He was reportedly “told that he would need to pay upward of $1 million to attend the events.” Zuberi was also interested in using Cohen’s connections to the incoming administration to facilitate potential business opportunities inside and outside the U.S.
  • The subpoena on the inaugural committee also targets a credit card transaction company called Stripe. Interestingly, Jared Kushner’s brother, Josh Kushner, is an investor in the company.

Inaugural misspending. When the FBI raided Michael Cohen’s office last year, some of the tapes they seized included hours of conversations between Cohen and event producer Stephanie Wolkoff. The tapes reportedly include Wolkoff’s accounts of how inaugural money was spent, “the general chaos of the process,” and the people involved – including Trump’s children. Wolkoff made regular presentations to the Trump family during the planning process, allowing them to weigh in on everything from drone cameras to guests and entertainment.

  • One of Wolkoff’s concerns was the ethical conduct of the Trump family, in part because Trump’s hotel was paid over $1.5 million from the inaugural fund. An email in which Wolkoff directly stated her concern was sent to Ivanka Trump. Additionally, Wilkoff reportedly told Melania Trump her concerns multiple times.
  • According to sources who spoke with Vanity Fair, Richard Gates made side deals with “a couple individuals working on the inauguration” to pay them directly from donors rather than from the inaugural fund. Doing so allowed the committee “ to avoid reporting the full amount raised from donors.” Another person that raised Wilkoff’s concerns was committee chairman Tom Barrack. Excerpts of emails published by Vanity Fair suggest Wilkoff believed Barrack was allowing exorbitant spending, sometimes to benefit himself – e.g. Barrack’s chairman dinner, which included guests like Michael Flynn, Elliott Broidy, and foreign officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE.

Chairman Barrack. A confidential memo obtained by ProPublica revealed that the Chairman of Trump’s Inaugural Committee, Tom Barrack, planned to profit off his connections to Trump’s administration and the access to foreign officials that came with it. Barrack’s investment firm, Colony NorthStar, circulated the memo in February 2017, detailing a “strategic plan” to open an office in Washington DC and “cultivate domestic and international relations while avoiding any appearance of lobbying.”

  • Reminder: Mueller’s team interviewed Tom Barrack in early 2018. People familiar with the matter told AP the questioning focused on Manafort and Rich Gates, including Gates’ work on the inaugural committee. Gates reportedly wrote the memo Barrack’s company circulated. A different source reported broader questions about the finances of the campaign the transition, and the inauguration.

Emoluments. At the end of last year, Maryland and Washington DC prosecutors subpoenaed Trump’s company, DJT Holdings, that controls his DC Hotel and his golf resorts in the US and in Scotland and Ireland, as part of an ongoing investigation into whether the president is violating the Emoluments clause by continuing to profit off his business while in office. Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS, said DJT Holdings is suspicious because of the “enormous amounts of capital flowing…from unknown sources,” insinuating that perhaps Russian money could be involved.

Trump Org. Manhattan federal prosecutors have requested interviews with Trump Organization executives, though as CNN reported, it is not clear what topics they are interested in. There are two likely possibilities: questions related to campaign-finance violations related to hush-money payments, and/or questions regarding Trump’s inaugural committee spending. Last summer, a Trump campaign official was questioned about coordination between the campaign and the Trump Organization.

Lobbying firms. Prosecutors with the Southern District of New York have been interviewing people involved in three major law and lobbying firms that worked with Paul Manafort to promote the interests of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych. The questions have revolved around the flow of money through Mercury Public Affairs, the Podesta Group and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The investigation was spawned by Mueller’s deep dive into Manafort’s past.

Cohen doc drop. A New York federal judge will release material related to the search warrant issued against Michael Cohen. The judge gave the government until February 28th to submit their proposed redactions. After that, the documents could be publicly released in redacted form.

OTHER

AMI blackmail. Jeff Bezos published a blog post Thursday accusing National Enquirer’s publisher, AMI, of trying to extort him. In the post, Bezos said AMI’s chief content officer threatened to release photos and text messages of Bezos and a woman he was allegedly having an affair with. To prevent this from happening, Bezos had to tell the press that he has “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” The source for the personal text messages was reportedly the mistress’s brother, Michael Sanchez, who is an outspoken Trump supporter with close to Roger Stone and Carter Page.

  • The Daily Beast: Documents… show that Michael Sánchez believed the Enquirer pursued its story about Bezos with “President Trump’s knowledge and appreciation”—a chase encouraged, in Sánchez’s estimation, by Republican operatives “who THINK Jeff gets up every morning and has a [Washington Post] meeting to plot its next diabolical attack on President Trump.”
  • Reminder: AMI president David Pecker offered to help Trump kill negative stories during the 2016 campaign. Pecker reportedly has a trove of material that could potentially harm Trump’s image or reputation, kept in a safe. This could be used as blackmail against Trump, compromising the president of the United States.

Deutsche loan. The New York Times reported that in early 2016, Trump attempted to get a loan from Deutsche Bank, partly to replace money he loaned to his own presidential campaign and enlarge the Trump Organization’s real estate portfolio. Senior officials at the bank decided to turn down Trump’s request, believing he his “divisive candidacy” made the loan too risky. Sources said the bank was concerned if Trump became president and defaulted on the loan, the bank would be in a politically sensitive situation trying to seize the assets of the president of the United States.

  • Sources familiar with the loan request said some of the money was intended to pay for work at Trump’s Scotland golf resort, though a Trump Organization spokeswoman denied it. Trump’s golf courses in Ireland and Scotland have come up before due to the large amount of money “flowing into these projects from unknown sources,” according to Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson. See the “Department of Justice” section above for more information on the investigation into these golf courses.